It is not every week I close an 800-page trade paperback with the thought, I wish it had been longer. The Light Bearer, Donna Gillespie’s richly imagined odyssey of an extraordinary 1st century woman at the historical turning point when the might of Rome clashed with the tribal cultures of Germanic Europe, is one of the most gripping page-turners I have read. Notably, even a sense of incompleteness at the story’s conclusion did not seriously mar my enjoyment. What did throw me off, in the second half, was the contradiction between the admirable research that has obviously gone into recreating a civilisation about which few written records have survived, and the wholesale sacrifice, for dramatic effect, of historical chronology.
51. At the birth of Auriane, daughter of a Chattian chieftain, seeress Ramis prophesies the girl will rise to prominence in a time of war but slay her father – the greatest of all crimes. Resisting Ramis’s claims she belongs to the priesthood, Auriane is driven by tragedy to forgo the normal path to a family of her own, and instead takes up the life of a warrior with a duty to exact revenge.
In Rome, a runaway slave boy is about to be put to death when he is discovered to be Marcus Julianus, the long-ago kidnapped son of a prominent Roman senator. Left to his own devices, Marcus would prefer to immerse himself in a scholarly life, but his sense of justice and responsibility forge him into a statesman.
Through treachery, violence, and love, the lives of Auriane and Marcus become inseparable from the fate of their people, yet, unknown to each other, each has also been given a sacred amulet which in the darkest days will bind their lives together.
Warning: my discussion of The Light Bearer contains elements that may be viewed as spoilers by those unfamiliar with the history of the second half of the 1st century. The Chatti actually existed, and the historical dates and events associated with their fight against Rome make certain plot developments obvious. The same goes for the reigns of the Roman Emperors who figure in the story. I do not necessarily treat these events as secrets to be side-stepped.
The Light Bearer languished on my shelves for a long time before I picked it up, read about thirty pages, and then set it aside for months. Although I immediately liked the author’s writing style, the tense dynamics in the first chapter created a negative reaction in me. When the second chapter switched to another character in another part of the world and jumped six years, I grew too restless to continue.
But the impressions I had gathered stewed in the back of my mind, and after checking out a few related articles I found my interest renewed. This time, I withheld judgement until I was on firmer ground with the characters, felt enchantment rise , and devoured the story in five days. It took me longer to process what I had read.
When I call The Light Bearer a page-turner it is because I read much of it in that blissful state where constant thrills fuel a pulse-raising compulsion to find out what will happen next. The narrative tension rarely slackens, calmer episodes being as suspenseful, conflict-filled, and forward-moving as the fiercest action scenes. One of the biggest wonders is that, to me, there were no dead or irrelevant moments; there was over-arching purpose and meaning in every scene.
Some readers have found the prose ponderous and meandering, and it is true that Gillespie’s wielding of language as an artistic tool is particularly observable in the spiritual mysticism which pervades the customs and beliefs of Auriane’s tribe. On the other hand, the different tonal quality of the sections set in Rome just as effectively underscores the pragmatism of a more “modern” populace. My stylistic tastes have been shaped by a love of nineteenth-century literature and poetry, and so spareness is not exactly a requirement for my literary enjoyment; I drew aestethic pleasure from the lyrical rhythm of Gillespie’s writing.
If you are wondering about the mysticism, Gillespie simply illuminates a belief system rooted in Northern European mythology (see, for example, the Icelandic sagas). While the Chatti along with the other Germanic tribes believe in magic and there are a few instances of visionary trances and portentous dreams in the story, The Light Bearer here treads the path of historical fiction as carefully as slender archaeological and written evidence combined with anthropological studies of similar cultures allow, choosing not to diverge into fantasy literature.
The book is well titled, I think. Freya, or Fria as she is called in this story, is the Germanic goddess who animates all living things; she is a loving Mother Earth, and also revered as the bringer of light. In a society where women are considered closer to the gods than men and exercise both spiritual and political power – as priestesses, ambassadors, landowners, and war councillors - Auriane’s relationship with the goddess is both nurturing and empowering, offsetting the fatalistic aspects of her culture. It is another woman, the seeress Ramis, whose seemingly magical powers and stern prophesies instill fear-mingled respect in the Chatti and neighbouring tribes, who sets the riddle-like challenges for Auriane that inspire her growth into the (symbolic) light bearer for her people.
I thought Auriane a convincing character of her time and culture as well as an immensely admirable heroine. The role she inhabits in the story is one that is typically reserved for a male protagonist: a chieftain’s daughter, her skill as a warrior and ability to inspire others earn her the status of a Boudicca of the Chatti. Happily, she is anything but a clichéd superwoman. Her honesty and self-doubts engaged my sympathies and her stubbornness and cautious curiosity kept her very real. Also, relief of reliefs, there is no nervous attempt on the author's part to make Auriane "more feminine" by having the male protagonist be physically abler than she.
The active participation of women in Chattian society is contrasted with their lack of standing in Rome. Among her own people Auriane’s achievements as a warrior cause men and women to honour her as a leader blessed by the gods; her battle-scarred body is a badge of honour, her courage gives those she leads and protects comfort. In Rome, forced to become a gladiatrix (a modern word), her physical prowess singles her out as a freak: female gladiators are a suspect amusement, the frivolous indulgence of decadent Emperors. For the first time in her life, she becomes ashamed of her body which does not fit Roman standards of beauty, and her attempts to safeguard the welfare of her Chattian co-captives get her ridiculed.
The legends that grow up around Auriane capture Marcus Julianus’s attention before he ever meets her. Reading the reports and correspondence left by his father, who served with the Roman army in Germania and even conveyed his son a strange amulet from there, he becomes increasingly intrigued. “[...]she was the spirit of streams breaking through rock, the numen of primeval places. [...] She was a wild ghost, fighting nearby, and despite the vast space between them and the distance between their customs and ways, he sensed their enemy was the same” (pages 181-2). As someone who honours love over duty, and truth over safety, Marcus, too, eventually sees himself forced to resort to violence to oppose the rulers of Rome.
Does The Light Bearer paint the Germanic tribes as noble savages and Rome as a barbaric civilisation? Looking at Marcus Julianus’s admiration of Auriane, his wistful longing for a closer relationship with nature, and enlightened condemnation of many aspects of Roman politics and pastimes as decadent and cruel, yes. Looking at the internal pettiness, rivalries, conflicts, and superstitions that tear the Chatti apart as much as the military aggression of Rome does, no. Without Rome, Auriane’s journey to strength and insight could not be completed. Without the tragedies and injustices she suffers among her own people, that journey could not have been started. While it is easy to imagine where the author’s sympathies lie, and a sense of inevitability haunts the fate of the Chattian struggle for survival, the picture Gillespie presents of the Germanic tribes is satisfyingly complex. Ultimately, as Ramis tells a disbelieving Auriane, whose sense of failure as she fights to find safety for her family, her people, and herself poisons her with feelings with sorrow and unworthiness, catastrophe is fertile: it brings forth new worlds.
Throughout The Light Bearer, catastrophe certainly forces Auriane to re-examine the things she holds to be true. The conclusions she draws repeatedly put her choices at variance with customs and traditions. An independent thinker who at the same time is a creature of a specific culture, her encounters with the different behaviour and values of the Roman aggressors spark off ideas and actions that increase her internal conflict and alter how she deals with the world. Thus a Roman thrall, Decius, a former soldier taken prisoner by the Chatti, goes from somebody she has despised for years to a reluctant ally and finally, dangerously, to more than a friend. Yet even as he becomes her key to unlocking the mysteries of this alien race and to turning their strenths into weapons for the Chatti, their association flies in the face of tribal laws. And so, in her very quest to honour and fulfill what is required of her, she constantly risks being made an outcast, or worse, be punished by death. Whether her questioning of tradition strengthens or weakens the tribe is a tense issue both for herself and her people.
The fascinatingly lively depiction of Chattian society in a period of transformation is one of the greatest strengths of the book. Once all the action moves to Rome in the last third of the novel, I thought the story weakened. I attribute it to five major causes:
Firstly, Gillespie’s Rome is almost as detailed as her Germania but the overly familiar emphasis on its corruptness, decadence, and tyranny lacked freshness. The epic scope of the first two thirds of the novel also shrinks to a story mainly concerned with love, personal survival, and political assassination. It is not a bad story at all, and as part of Auriane’s personal odyssey it makes sense, but the execution and focus fell short of my expectations.
Secondly, this is the section where Gillespie tampers with history to serve her plot purposes, shortening Emperor Domitian’s actual reign (81-96) by a decade or more. The political and social acts which for a long time rendered Domitian reasonably popular among the general populace (even while he remained at loggerheads with the senate) are completely disregarded, and the reader is told that any worthwhile accomplishment slips in only due to Marcus’s influence as First Advisor. The plot reduces Domitian into a childishly willful, insecure madman who is hard to distinguish from the novel’s earlier portrayal of Nero. Recent historians have suggested that evidence points to Domitian’s wife remaining loyal to his memory for the rest of her life. The Light Bearer adheres to the juicier, hostile sources that claim Domitia Longina participated in the conspiracy to murder him. The result is a well-paced thriller of an ending that nevertheless frustrated me as someone who until then had been reading an excellent historical.
Thirdly, Marcus undergoes a change from the intensely loyal boy and kind, intelligent young man of the first half of the novel to a character so self-righteous that I eventually began bristling with annoyance whenever his thought processes were shown. Unlike Auriane, he never doubts himself or his judgement, and apparently is free of human flaws or vices. His enemies envy him. His intelligence, education, and integrity cause every other character except Auriane to defer to his superior wisdom. His library and school are internationally renowned, but he seems to have nothing to learn from anyone. He sways tyrants away from monstrosities, advices military veterans on siegecraft, secretly ensure banned texts continue to be available, declines offers of the Imperial throne but picks the successor. As Domitian becomes uncontrollable, dispatching suspected enemies left, right, and centre, Marcus coolly concludes, “Here I am on the border of dark and light, the one check on a rational madman [...] You leave me no choice but to plan your death” (page 397). On at least two occasions after that he considers killing others, but naturally he is not being hypocritical because his motives are pure. At this point only his relationship with Auriane, which shows him from an emotional, kind, and protective side, redeemed him from near insufferability.
Fourthly, the grand scene which finally brings Auriane and Marcus together and sees them professing their love for each other is exasperatingly silly and unbelievable. Granted, Marcus is already familiar with Auriane and has even committed treason to protect her from harm, and Auriane has once, back in Germania, sensed what I guess is his presence in a trance with Ramis. But she has never clapped eyes on him or heard of him before the night they meet in Domitian’s garden after a violent incident. She is half-naked, restrained by Praetorian guards, and has just dealt with a lecherous Emperor. Then she sees Marcus and looks into his eyes: “She sensed the soul that uncannily matched her own” and that he, too, “loathed Domitian” . It is love at first sight. When the Emperor leaves, Marcus dismisses the Praetorians. “She came close then, moving her head inquisitively against his chest, nuzzling him like a pony, and then was still, resting against him contentedly” (491). Right. In fairness, their scene together is quite sweet, but the context makes the whole thing ludicrously unbelievable for me. Furthermore, it was impossible for me to accept with a straight face the repeated reveries about how deeply she loves him after that one meeting. Earlier in The Light Bearer Gillespie proved she can write about love and sex in the most natural, character-revealing manner, so the unsuccessfulness of Auriane and Marcus’s first proper scene together was a surprise. Things do improve, however. Auriane regains her personality and she and Marcus have some interesting scenes together which make it clear that if Marcus wants her he will have to accept that, unlike Roman women, she will always make her own decisions about what is right for her. I was also pleased with the plan Marcus ultimately suggests for their common future.
Finally, loose ends. In 89 the Chatti revolted again, this time with the co-operation of the disgruntled Roman legions stationed in Moguntiacum (now Mainz). With the muddled chronology in The Light Bearer this event is instead pushed forward to early in the year after the Chattian defeat when Auriane was captured (historically, around 83, although Auriane is said to be no more than twenty-five when Marcus speaks with her in Rome despite the reader having been told she was born in the eleventh year of Emperor Claudius’s reign (page 3), which would have made her thirty-two in 83). Even so, the revolt (which failed) is noted only in relation to its consequences for Emperor Domitian. What effect the news has on the captive Auriane is not shown. Indeed, not only have Auriane’s priorities quickly shifted from thoughts of home to the discovery of love, but the reader receives no further information about the many characters left behind. While such knowledge is in no way vital to the plot, the complete silence did bother me as a reader invested in their individual lives and their destiny as a people. Interestingly, Gillespie did not intend to write a follow-up to The Light Bearer until her German publisher persuaded her to do so (link), and so, fortunately, there now exists a sequel, Lady Of The Light. Unfortunately, Lady Of The Light reportedly ends on a major cliffhanger, and a third volume is still being written. I intend to content myself with the ending of The Light Bearer until the third, concluding (?) part has been published.
The above caveats may seem overwhelming, but really they only apply to the last third of the book. Even there, Gillespie’s exceptionally vibrant, intelligent storytelling overcame most of my grumbles. Taken as a whole, The Light Bearer is so much more than the sum of its parts, and in many ways I agree with the praise this longtime bestseller (originally published in 1994) has earned from reviewers and readers. Auriane, for example, instantly became one of my top favourite fictional characters. How I wish there were more heroines like her! My final thought: for a first novel, The Light Bearer is a tour de force.
Books of related interest: Gillespie’s rendering of the Veleda, Ganna, the Bructeri - the tribe of Auriane’s mother, and Legio XIV Gemina, stationed at Moguntiacum, invite comparisons with their characterisations in Lindsey Davis’s Falco series, which presents slighly earlier events from the Roman point of view. Veleda, the Bructeri, and the Fourteeenth Gemina appear in The Iron Hand Of Mars (one of my favourites in the series),and both Veleda and Ganna (in the Falco series, Veleda’s successor) have their moments in Saturnalia. Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Caenis can be glimpsed in several of the books. Domitian plays a particularly significant role in the first, The Silver Pigs. The Course Of Honour, also by Davis although not part of the Falco mystery series, is all about the life-long love between Vespasian and Caenis.